The queen of '60s pop who gave us "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to" deserves to be remembered as an outspoken advocate for queer and women's rights — not just a footnote in music history. Here's to the gay grandmother we've always needed.
Revisit that damned interview with Lesley Gore.
It was one of the more ambitious items on my maiden to-do list of 2015. I’d been trying to write a freelance profile of the singer off and on for two years, pursuing different contacts who knew Gore with slight success. As open as she had been about her sexuality in decade-old interviews, few journalists had lately bothered to ask her more about her life as a gay woman.
I’d almost lucked out once in 2013, when the Lesley Gore International Fan Club’s president, Jack, forwarded my contact information to her. LGIFC is one of those romantic setups — members receive autographed 8x10s and membership cards by post. Now in its 50th year, the club has survived the transition from snail mail to HTML, its vintage membership perks intact; batches of high-gloss photos and customized cards are still mailed out. The club inadvertently gives new meaning to being a “card-carrying lesbian.” I like to imagine a happier world in which queer women could effortlessly Bat Signal one another by flashing our Lesley Fan Club credentials — that is, if more queer women actually knew that Lesley was gay. Many didn’t, and still don’t.
Jack told me Lesley would be in touch. She never was.
When I didn’t get my interview, the alternative became a eulogy.
After experiencing back pain following an extensive tour, Lesley Gore went in for an MRI. She discovered that the pain meant a tumor, and the tumor meant terminal lung cancer brought on by years of smoking. She died soon after, a couple days after Valentine’s this past February; she was 68.
Born in Brooklyn in 1946 and raised in New Jersey, her father earned his keep making children’s swimwear. Survivors included her partner of 33 years (a jewelry maker), her brother and co-composer, and a cocker spaniel named Little Billie, named after one of her favorite singers.
With the release of "It's My Party", Lesley as we knew her happened overnight. She was just another 16-year-old American girl singing into her hairbrush until she became a guest on Sam Riddle’s Hollywood A Go-Go and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand — a high school junior dreamily poring over Seventeen magazine until she suddenly found herself within its pages. Her death came with a similar, overnight rapidity. The public didn’t know Lesley Gore was ill until she was gone. Her fan club would continue to send out autographed photographs, but they would be photocopies.
Lesley had been working on a memoir and an autobiographical musical before she died. Her final curtain had been called all too soon: first by mortality, and later by the obituary authors who mentioned so little about her apart from her Billboard success with “It’s My Party” and “You Don’t Own Me.” Along with those two songs, she was memorialized with a series of physical descriptors: bouncy blonde hair, blue eyes, Motown sound, as well as the "Queen of Teen Angst" (an arbitrary title that begged a few questions: At exactly what age do people age out of angst? Is the A-word simply replaced with another one, anxiety, when one reaches womanhood?).
The Advocate managed to come up with 235 words about Gore, not mentioning her close friendship with feminist leader Bella Abzug, her soft spot for rural queers (“there are probably two gay people in the whole damn town,” she sympathized when meeting Midwestern queers during her tour), her surprising apathy toward the institution of marriage (“for me, it isn't important to get married”), or the great extent to which she lent her voice to reproductive and queer justice campaigns, including Joan Jett’s recent feminist PSA and the LGBT docuseries In the Life.
Last winter, we’d already lost another sixtysomething Jewish dyke from New York named Lesley: the author and activist Leslie Feinberg. Her obituary in The Advocate was 1,300 words in length — deservedly so. And perhaps pop will always pale in comparison to literature, just as angst will always be for teens. But as Susan Sontag once wrote: "If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?"
I wanted my Doors. Lesley deserved better. As do all the rest. History, even that of the LGBT community, is notorious for abandoning queer women — relegating our sort to the footnotes. Historical documentation so often fails to mention our roles in fine art, in science, in royalty, in renaissance, in presidencies, and — yes — even on American Bandstand. While we have an ever increasing number of lesbian role models to take after in 2015, we continue to be denied the privilege of looking back in time and seeing women like us everywhere. We don’t know nearly enough about the queer women who came before us. Lesley was one of them.
When I was still hoping to get my interview, I had planned to talk to Lesley about her recent tour, ask how she felt about performing her classics after all these years, and hopefully renew contemporary interest in her live performances.
Thanks to The First Wives Club — which was fast becoming a feminist cult classic — and an unfuckwithable scene from American Horror Story: Asylum, young women were rocking out to “You Don’t Own Me” like it was 1963 all over again. So it seemed absurd to me that soon before her death, Lesley was performing at puny convention centers in New Jersey. I wanted her to become an unquestionable lesbian icon — to elbow her way into our temperamental canon somewhere between Bessie Smith and Melissa Etheridge.
She could have used the hype. In a frank interview at the age of 59, she voiced concern over her finances. “I don’t really have the money to retire yet,” she said. “I haven’t really taken care of myself financially and that’s one of the things I regret most.” After her passing, Page Six revealed that Lesley’s estate was worth $50,000. By celebrity icon standards, she died appallingly broke.
But what I wanted us to talk about most, which made me feel slightly guilty, was her sexuality. I initially thought it would be both prying and superficial to focus on her personal life — but I reminded myself that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith–era affair made the New York Times a decade prior. Even the most esteemed of news outlets aren’t above reporting on the intimate aspects of celebrated heterosexual relationships.
And I wanted to talk to Lesley about her gayness for more than just superficial reasons.
People of all sexual orientations inherit a useful first-aid kit of platitudes from their mother figures: don’t swim immediately after meals; never go to bed with a wet head; don’t talk to old men driving vans older than they are. But when you’re gay, a straight mother can only teach you so much about navigating the messy world of your own desires. This is one of the minor tragedies of lesbianism: We often have to seek out advice about how to figure out our identities elsewhere. This "seeking out" is why lesbians still watch The L Word years after its finale; why so many young queers talk about the internet like it’s a favorite aunt; why lives like Lesley’s are worth the space in our public and personal archives. We should be able to consult with and see ourselves in our gay grandmothers — witness how they survived.
I crate-picked my very first Lesley Gore record in the land of alternative rock — The B-52’s, Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal. Cornered between a sorority boutique and a parking deck in downtown Athens, Georgia, Wuxtry Records has resisted Starbucksification for nearly 40 years. It owes its longevity to another alt ensemble from the town, R.E.M. Two of the band’s members, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, spent hours at the Wuxtry poring over musty stacks in the '80s while attending college in Athens.
People pay the Wuxtry a visit for two reasons: to trail Stipe’s swishy teen aura around the shop and see what new finds it leads them to, or to buy a certain record. Both are equally satiating, and on that inescapably muggy Sunday morning in August 2013, I was of the latter camp.
I thumbed through box after box of L’s until The Golden Hits appeared somewhere between Lenny Kravitz and Lynyrd Skynyrd. And there she was, a woman depicted in watercolor with unmistakable, omega-shaped hair. She sat wide-legged in a red chair near the cover’s bottom-left corner, a forearm lazily resting on its back: Even by today’s ungirdled standards, her posture, her jeans, and her button-down were anything but ladylike. A list boasting her 10 most popular tunes fell to her left, stylized in a red handwritten font far from the expected calligraphy of her old home ec courses.
I sought out Lesley because I was sad about love and tired of listening to Lana Del Rey. I was attempting to date in a rural place while feeling as though I — multiracial, working-class trash, gay yet very apathetic to HRC bumper stickers — was too much. I was not simply a date, but one that came with baggage rivaling Mary Poppins’. Remembering that Lesley was also gay, I romanticized her narrative, conflating being a lesbian in the New South in 2013 with being one in a big city in 1963.
I imagined that we held our tongues in similar ways. “I never found it was necessary,” she once told an AfterEllen interviewer of the soft-spokenness with which she’d approached coming out. “I really never kept my life private. Those who knew me, those who worked with me, were well aware.” Despite it being widely reported that Lesley only recently came out in 2005, she’d never hid; folks just never thought to ask.
Like her fellow 1960s songbirds Millie Small, Julie London, and Doris Day, the subjects of Lesley’s sweetest bubblegum pop tunes were men: Bobbys and other wholesomely named fellas; cheaters; gents she wished were hers; and boys who tried to tell her what to do (and what to say). But unlike her Technicolor contemporaries, Lesley had been a Sarah Lawrence–attending, gingham oxford–wearing gay girl who was singing songs about men in whom she would come to have no interest. It’s amusing to think that Lesley was not only capable of making the boy-crazy lyrics that music producer Quincy Jones stuffed into her mouth come alive — she did so in a way that was entirely convincing.
Like so many girls before and after her, Lesley sorted it all out in college. “I didn’t really know I was gay until I was in my twenties. I just experimented with boys and girls and had reason to adore them both. I think my first really serious relationship was a gay one, so that began to tell me things about myself,” she told Lesbian News in July 2006.
Was there a moment in university where she was bowled over by her own desire, where the songs about Johnny took on a whole new meaning? Or was performance just that: performance? How did she manage to meet other gay women in the hush-hush world of her youth? Where did she go on her first date with a woman? And fuck asking when she knew she was gay — when did she know she was in love? These were some of the questions I’d hoped to ask her. Aside from a couple of interviews conducted with the LGBT media in the mid-aughts and a conversation with k.d. lang curated by Ms. magazine in 1990, her history remained far from documented and far from appreciated.
In her performances, Lesley smiles through tears in an upbeat way that could be described as many things — deranged by today’s standards; normative by rigid 1960s ideals of gender performance. This is evident in the titles of her earlier tunes, many of which are now considered golden hits: “She’s a Fool,” “I Don’t Wanna Be a Loser,” “Wedding Bell Blues.” She was the daughter of the housewife in a 1950s kitchen appliance commercial, appearing thrilled over new technology while actually thinking I hate this fucking microwave oven and fantasizing about rereading The Feminine Mystique.
Gore showed physical restraint in live performances, softening enormously tragic lyrics with a beaming smile that refused to flicker until the final note. Female agony, when externalized, is understood to be ugly. Lesley’s smile was a way of viscerally denying hurt despite singing about it. She was able to send a message without ever looking like its expected messenger.
In her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” another Lesley — Leslie Jamison — pinpoints a shiny new breed of maimed woman: the post-wounded girl. “They’re over it. I am not a melodramatic person. God help the woman who is,” she writes. “Post-wounded women make jokes about being wounded or get impatient with women who hurt too much. The post-wounded woman conducts herself as if preempting certain accusations: Don’t cry too loud; don’t play victim.”
Fifty years before the advent of the PWG, there was a type of girl in post-McCarthy-era America who articulated the pain of Lady Macbeth while possessing the carefree demeanor of the futuristic post-wounded girl. Lesley was among them. At a point in time, I too wanted to be this kind of woman, who could have her sorrow and look good, too. Her sadness felt like an exaggeration of mine. I stewed myself in the dated lingo of that era: I was a ditz, a dipstick, a dork, a drag; a skag, a skuzz.
But Lesley — even at her worst — would keep on trucking, beaming through the breakup that’s ripping her heart to shreds. Hey, she says, he’s a trifling idiot and doesn’t really love me, but in the meantime, I’m going to keep on trying because something good might come of it. After all, for every “It’s My Party” (wherein Lesley gets dumped by Johnny for Judy), there’s a lesser-known follow-up hit called “Judy’s Turn to Cry” (in which Leslie steals her boy Johnny back).
The true beauty in the Lesley Gore songbook isn’t that a handful of her songs are pre–second wave feminist anthems: It's that her songs are simultaneously upbeat and sad. If you listen to them, you just might forget why you were sad to begin with. So when my stabs at dating went as well as they do for those who are grossly out of practice, I turned to Lesley like boys in Athens, Georgia, still do to Michael Stipe. I laid needle to vinyl and “I Don’t Wanna Be a Loser” comforted me, just like “Everybody Hurts” does them. I’d found my heroine, the woman who could articulate those gross little emotions that I’d never vocalize myself.
I always get a funny feeling when I listen to oldies, particularly songs about romantic interests. Would Earth, Wind & Fire be OK with me associating “September” with a woman? What about Bobby Darin, or Doris Day? But there was never a doubt about Lesley — if anything, she’d encourage it.
Over the years, Gore’s music became synonymous with female solidarity. At the tail end of 1995’s The First Wives Club, Diane Keaton, Bette Midler, and Goldie Hawn reprise “You Don’t Own Me.” Dressed in white suits, they sway their bodies and swing their limbs like members of an aged girl band. While the film’s premise centers around their characters getting financial and amorous revenge on their duplicitous ex-husbands, all action is driven by their strong bond as friends, as women. With a little help from Lesley, their camaraderie receives the last word.
In 2012, Lesley lent the same song to a reproductive justice PSA featuring dozens of female creatives, many of whom have been active in projects that celebrated community among women, among them Tavi Gevinson, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Natasha Lyonne.
Around that same time, Lesley also had a role in my own closest friendship. If I scroll back far enough on Instagram, I can find the short videos of my college best friend and me, lying on my bedroom floor, smoking and belting the lyrics to “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” in each other’s faces. I remember us being saddened by our university town and the endless cycle of Confederate flags, Confederate opinions, straight boys who weren’t worth knowing (her) and the gay women who just weren’t there (me). But we found survival in these moments, in friendship, in the blood sister pact that was getting the hell out of there.
Tried-and-true friendships between women are priceless in a world that thrills at pitting us against one another. But those between queer women seem even harder to come by, if not impossible. Recently, prior to having drinks with another queer woman, I meekly texted her:
full disclosure: i’ve never ‘had drinks’ with a gay woman outside of a date or professional meeting. pls bear with me while i grapple with my internalized misogyny.
Getting me, she replied:
Haha. Don’t worry. We’ll get through it together.
In her essay “Lesbian Artists,” Harmony Hammond writes, “What can I tell you except the truth? We do not have a history. We are not even visible to each other.” Involved in a career that devoured her free time, Lesley experienced her own share of invisibility when it came to other queer women. “When I talk to some of my gay women friends now who might just be a little bit older than me, they would come in [to New York City] from Long Island or New Jersey. They would put on their black Levis and black jackets and run to the bars. I wasn't quite able to do that,” she conceded later in life. While the world of Lesley’s twenties isn’t the world of mine, this resonated with me. The same challenges in finding love and community then still exist for us now.
As corny as it is in hindsight, the television drama The L Word grapples with similar challenges. While the show centers around a preestablished group of sapphic friends, one of the most brutally honest scenes in its six seasons transpires when two characters take a stab at some sort of human connection with one another. They run into one another at the Palms, a historic lesbian bar (the sort that Lesley was never privy to in her younger years). Dana, an athlete, and Jenny, a writer, exchange a few words. They eventually find a common thread: Both are outsiders to their own supposed gay culture — of gender role intuition, of dating. Finding something resembling intimacy in their mutual sequestration, they go home together.
What follows, while slapstick, is difficult to watch. Both have sobered up by the time they reach Jenny’s disheveled garage apartment, and all there is to drink is juice. They both sit quietly on the edge of her bed, sipping through straws like wallflower schoolgirls at their first junior high dance. Jenny, green to lesbian seduction and accustomed to the ease in hooking up with straight men, whips off her top before Dana, who has been recently heartbroken, is ready.
A head hits a wall, limbs fly every which way. Juice is spilled on already filthy bedsheets. The incident isn’t so much about sexual incompatibility as it is about two women attempting to connect with one another, and failing desperately. When they both come to their senses, Dana concludes: "Maybe we should just be friends, or something."
Despite 1960s social mores and lack of access to community, Lesley managed to befriend another queer woman with enviable closeness: her English equivalent, Dusty Springfield. They both went on to give the boys of the Beatles a run for their money on the pop charts, and Dusty even recorded several of Lesley’s songs.
Sixteen years ago, Lesley Gore wrote the words she now deserves in a eulogy to her close friend in Time. “I met Dusty Springfield in 1963 on the BBC TV show Top of the Pops, when I was promoting ‘It’s My Party.’ ... She sang live with the band and sounded totally awesome. I lip-synched and felt somewhat foolish,” she wrote of her friend. “Our paths crossed again in Los Angeles in the ’70s. We both enjoyed watching women’s tennis and developed quite a friendship ... When she went into the vocal booth, put on the headset and closed her eyes, she reached down into the depths of her soul and made magic.”
I wondered if Lesley had difficulty making that initial connection with Dusty in the '60s. Did she whip out her rotary phone and do the equivalent of apologizing for her own internalized misogyny before attempting friendship with Dusty? We don’t see or hear nearly enough about about the queer women who’ve been platonic friends, support systems, co-conspirators.
I want to live in a world that proudly and openly remembers women as proudly and openly as they lived. While being gay in America is hardly the kiss of death it once was, there’s something implicitly shaming and misogynistic about queer women — particularly those who are elderly or of color — going textually unacknowledged, unappreciated, and undocumented. Women like Lesley should be treated as the founding mothers of a pedigree we can look back on with pride: one that’s rife with women who had determinedly squared jaws and plenty of guts; one full of innovative work and personal histories that, when we’re at our worst, remind us that success and something resembling happiness are possible in spite of all that we’ve been told.
Lesley Gore: the Billboard sensation, the one Quincy Jones discovered "almost on a dare." The one who taught her younger male friends how to drive and how to smoke (“She was a broad, she had moxie, she was tough,” one of the boys-turned-men told NPR). Lesley Gore: the one who belted one of the 20th century’s leading feminist anthems. And Lesley Gore: the one who loved like we do.
We should only have to lose Lesley once — and that should never be to history.